Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The Ethics of Clinical Trials

(Dan here…lifted from Robert’s Stochastic Thoughts)

The Ethics of Clinical Trials

In a clinical trial the therapy is decided by a pseudo random number generator. How can this be ethical ? People are treated differently for no reason related to different interests different values and priorities or even different merit (assuming merit can differ).There is a utilitarian rational for clinical trials. Through such trials doctors learn, and that knowledge is useful to future patients. But this rationale is utterly rejected as ethically unacceptable, because it was used to justify depraved experiments.

I think the current discussion of the ethics of clinical trials is based on a mixture which is partly consequentialist and partly deontological, and that it is incoherent, because people feel the need to claim it is totally both, while the two are inevitably in conflict.

So it is asserted that physicians must act in the interest of the patient – each and every patient. It is also argued that clinical trials are morally acceptable. This does not make sense.

 

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Martin Luther King – Walls Separating Mankind

Martin Luther King when asked about the Berlin Wall: This is my first vision of the Wall. “And do you find it depressing?” Yes, I certainly do. It symbolizes the divisions of mankind. “Have you ever seen anything as disastrous as this?” Not really. Suddenly there are the divisions that continue to exist but when these divisions are symbolized by an actual wall, it becomes very depressing.

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MSU Pays for Former MSU President’s Criminal Defense

This does not come as a surprise to anyone in Michigan. Mostly it is quiet here and people are still stunned about something of this magnitude could go on for years. There were numerous complaints by female student athletes of various college ages and under which span 20 years. Complaints made to the university, administrators, coaches, trainers, etc. quietly fell to the wayside with conciliatory answers.

“he is an Olympic doctor and he should know what he is doing”, “filing a report would involve an investigation, making an accusation against Nassar, and requires a statement that I felt what Nassar did was unprofessional or criminally wrong”, “you could file a report if you were uncomfortable; but, there may be consequences”

Lindsey Lemke is a “Sister Survivor,” the name taken by the 256 survivors of Larry Nassar’s physical sexual assault. She and the others spent the last 18 months fighting “not just for justice for Nassar;” but, they also fought for accountability, “the accountability of Michigan State University who enabled Nassar’s continued abuse” by not reacting.

People are stunned this could happen at a state university. And there still is a battle going on for accountability beyond Nasser.

Former MSU President “Lou Anna Simon and Coach Kathie Klages face charges of lying to police about when they knew about sexual abuse reports against Nassar.” MSU is paying for their legal defense which is in the $milions along with half of Dean William Strampel’s defense. The mental harm done will never be erased for the hundreds of young women (one as young as 6) which is something MSU forgets when it comes discusses its image and the costs of going to court.

Recently, Interim President and former Governor John Engler resigned (requested) from the position. Some of his comments to victims and publicly in defense of the university were totally wrongheaded lacking empathy. The university is still learning there image is not as important as the harm done to the students who were abused under its watch. As attorney John Manly believes states:

“I think it’s sexism, misogyny, and you know, it’s not college football, it’s gymnastics. And the audience for gymnastics doesn’t generate hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.”

To hell with the money . . .

References:

Larry Nassar gymnastics scandal costs Michigan State in legal fees so far

Sister Survivors

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Its Time for Democrats to Come To Negotiate

McDonalds Anyone, Trump Buys for Lunch? Dems Refuse over Bad Offer on the Table.

Giving this guy some coverage is questionable; but he is an idiot along the lines of his boss who also says the dumbest things.

KEVIN HASSETT, Trump economic adviser: “You know as soon as it’s resolved, then people get their paychecks, and the government will go back to acting normal, and the economy will go back to the 3 percent growth that President Trump’s policies have delivered.” — interview Tuesday with Fox Business Network.

While it is true the economy probably will get a boost once the shutdown ends, but few independent economists think that boost will be sustained. The economy is facing other headwinds that make it unlikely growth will return to 2018’s pace. This shutdown in my opinion will only make it worse and cause consumers to hold back from spending which is needed to keep the economy going.

You have to wonder what goes on in this guy’s head with the little sh*t -eating grin he has. First damage to the economy (:50) and than an effect on the economy (3:11). Hassett argues Trump made a good and fair offer and Dems should come and discuss what they have already turned down before.

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Not Accurate

Not Accurate

BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate. — Office of the Special Counsel.

If this is the first story the special counsel has felt compelled to dispute, does that mean he had no objection to all the others that have come out before now? — Peter Baker, New York Times.

These things cannot both be true:

  • The Mueller investigation is a witch hunt fomented by a Mueller-Comey-Strzok cabal of Trump haters.
  • The statement from the Office of the Special Counsel calling BuzzFeed’s “description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office” “not accurate” definitively refutes the two-year long fake news crusade against Trump by the media.
Parsing the special counsel’s statement, it seems to refer to the “description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office.” Period. Note the repetition of the word “office.” The evidence may or may not exist. The office of the special counsel may or may not be in possession of it. They do not confirm or deny that they are not confirming or denying.
But “BuzzFeed’s description” is “not accurate.” Where does the crucial word “office” appear in the BuzzFeed description?

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A viral ad

(Dan here…lifted from Robert’s Stochastic Thoughts)

A viral ad

This ad is clearly designed to go viral also I enjoyed it, so I want to reward them. Notice one aspect of the viral strategy — the ad lasts amazingly long. TV ads are 30 seconds long, because they have to pay for every second. The shame shame shame goes on incredibly long — because youtube doesn’t charge by the second and making a strong impression is key to making people share it or uh copy a link to their low traffic blog (hey but every bit helps).

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More News

A National Emergency Believe It or Not Version, The Hill, Republican Congressional Representative Andy Bigg

It is hard to believe someone would write this stuff with any degree of being serious. This is why it should be reprinted as this Representative is an idiot.

“In this time of stasis in Congress and a national security crisis at the border, the president should strongly consider declaring a national emergency on the border and temporarily diverting a small fraction of the national budget to build the border wall. The invasion of illegal aliens has reached the point of a national security threat. Failure to recognize the gravity of the issue is willful submission to cognitive dissonance.

The border is wide open, and hundreds of thousands are entering the country illegally. On average we are interdicting more than 10 people every day who are known or suspected terrorists. While not all illegal aliens commit violent crimes against Americans, there are still dangerous gang members and other malevolent intentioned people who are pouring into America.”

There is no national security issue, no need to declare a national security crisis, no need to divert any money, no need for a wall, no invasion of illegal aliens, no suspected terrorists, no serious issues, no hundreds of thousands, no violent crimes, no large numbers of dangerous gang members, etc except in this man’s man.

Guaranteed’ Healthcare for All Residents – NYC, MedPage Today, Joyce Frieden

The program, which will cost $100 million annually, involves several parts. First, officials will work to increase enrollment in MetroPlus, which is New York’s public health insurance option. According to a press release from the mayor’s office, MetroPlus provides free or affordable health insurance that connects insurance-eligible New Yorkers to a network of providers that includes NYC Health + Hospitals’ 11 hospitals and 70 clinics. MetroPlus serves as an affordable, quality option for people on Medicaid, Medicare, and those purchasing insurance on the exchange.

Mayor de Blasio: “While the federal government works to gut health care for millions of Americans, New York City is leading the way by guaranteeing that every New Yorker has access to quality, comprehensive access to care, regardless of immigration status or their ability to pay.”

Grocery Store Chain Dismantled, investors recover their money, and Labor pensions short $millions. The Washington Post, Peter Whoriskey

The owner, a private-equity firm, sold off the vast retail empire, piece by piece, selling more than 100 convenience stores, pharmacies, and closed some of the 115 grocery stores. It previously auctioned off the real estate. In May 2017, the company announced the closure of the remaining 44 stores.

Founded in 1931, Marsh Supermarkets, filed for bankruptcy.

They didn’t treat employees right, and since the bankruptcy, everyone is out for their blood. The anger arises because although the sell-off allowed Sun Capital and its investors to recover their money and then some, the company entered bankruptcy leaving unpaid more than $80 million in debts to workers’ severance and pensions.

Many People are Dying in Canadian Clothing Donation Bins, National Post.

It was the third such Canadian death since November and at least the seventh since 2015.

The victims were homeless or suffering from addiction issues, and appeared to have been trying to remove clothing from the bins. “She climbed to get clothing and got hung up and succumbed to her injuries,” Assistant Vancouver Fire Chief David Boone said after a woman was killed by a bin in the city’s West Point Grey neighborhood.

Saudi Woman Fleeing Family admitted to Thailand, Bangkok Post, AGENCIES AND ONLINE REPORTERS

Hey I’m Rahaf. My father just arrived as I heard which worried and scared me a lot and I want to go to another country that I seek asylum in. But at least I feel save now under UNHCR protection with the agreement of Thailand authorities. And I finally got my passport back.

Australia said Tuesday it will “carefully consider” the asylum claim of an 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled alleged abuse from her family and is now in the care of the UN in Bangkok, after she fended off deportation in a gripping, live-tweeted ordeal.

Canada gave her asylum.

Shifting from Oil to Sun, The Manila Times, EI SUN OH

Tropical countries, Malaysia and the Philippines included, with their almost year-round exposure to hot sun and often breezy winds, should do a serious job of mapping out the most suitable locations for extracting solar and wind energy, not to mention harnessing geothermal and even wave energy. It is fortunate that some of us are blessed with oil and gas reserves, but all of us here in the tropics should cast our eyes far and wide and make our baby steps toward decoupling ourselves from the yoke of oil and perhaps also coal, and start taking energy nourishment directly from the sun, to name but one alternative energy source.

Merkel Appears to Take Aim at Trump with Vow to take on ‘More Responsibility’, Independent, Eleanor Busby

It appears to have been delivered as a veiled rebuke to Donald Trump as she vowed Germany would in the future play a larger role in the world. In her new year’s address, the German Chancellor said the concept of international cooperation was “coming under pressure” – which has been interpreted as a reference to strained relations with the US president.

Ms. Merkel said her country must “stand up for, argue and fight more strongly for our convictions” and “take on more responsibility in our own interests”.

The Chancellor devoted a large part of her speech to the benefits of bringing a multilateral approach to international problems – which she has defended in the face of Mr. Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.

Ms. Merkel said Germany will push for “global solutions” as it takes up a two-year seat on the UN Security Council, and she noted that the country is spending more on defense and humanitarian aid.

Ms. Merkel, who will step down as chancellor in 2021, pointed to curbing climate change, managing migration and combating terrorism as the kinds of challenges that benefit from international cooperation.

“We want to resolve all these questions in our own interest, and we can do that best if we consider the interests of others.

“That is the lesson from the two world wars of the last century. But this conviction is no longer shared today by everyone, and certainties of international cooperation are coming under pressure.”

What a White Boy Taught A Black Woman About Resistance, Medium, Autumn Allen

Two parent teachers had cookies and gave them out to the brown-eyed children only. The blue-eyed children sat and watched while the brown-eyed children enjoyed their cookies. Most of the blue-eyed children waited patiently, with hurt and confusion evident on their faces.

After the brown-eyed children had finished, the blue-eyed children were told to come up to get a cookie. They came eagerly except for Mark. Even though offered, Mark refused to line up with the rest.

The parent teachers then told the blue-eyed children they could have a cookie for one penny.

Shoulders drooped and hopeful eyes looked down to the floor. One boy dug in his pockets, hoping he could find a penny not realizing the rule was made specifically for his kind.

The experiment lasted for 5 minutes. In the end everyone received a cookie except for Mark who refused to take one even after the children were each given a penny. The teachers asked the brown-eyed children how it felt to take being privileged. Did they feel bad when the blue-eyed people were left out? Did anyone consider not eating their cookie until everyone got one?

They asked Mark why he didn’t come for his cookie. “Because I knew that  you were unfair. You were just gonna to keep being unfair. You were lying.”

The anger mirrored young black boys and also men who recognized the injustice and realized the whole system is corrupt and that participating in the system keeps you at its mercy while privileging others.

The Failure of Walls

There is speculation in some historical accounts as to why the Great Wall of China was built. The tribes in the north of China were militarily ahead but culturally behind the South of China. The northern tribes would drop down and raid southern China whenever possible to steal the riches of their neighbors. This is one reason as to why the Chinese opted to build the Great Wall.

Another speculation is the Great Wall was nothing more than an ambitious project contrived by a vain and glory seeking emperor. The Great Wall was supposed to show the world China’s superiority, making a clear distinction between civilized people of the north and the barbarians of the south. A simple barrier and very similar to what we are faced with today.

If you have not walked it, it is worth the effort to go to it and spend some time at it. North of Beijing and south of The Wall you will also go past the Ming Tombs.

In and around 122 AD, the Roman Emperor Antoninus Hadrian built a 70 + mile or what is called Hadrian’s Wall across England. Its purpose too was to keep the uncivilized from the south of England. was built after Hadrian had died by the new Emperor Antoninus Pius. Legitimately they were a defensive wall against the Picts; however, it was meant more for showing power and controlling the flow of people for purposes of taxation.

The Berlin Wall was built to keep people in Eastern Berlin preventing their escape to West Berlin. Thousands of ordinary Germans tried to breach these fortifications, to escape the GDR. Attempts were punished, and 138 people died trying, many of them shot, even pregnant women.

The Israel−Gaza security barrier is a border barrier first constructed by Israel in 1994 between the Gaza Strip and Israel. The barrier runs along the entire land border of the Gaza Strip.

The Maginot Line was a defense wall between France and Germany. Germans went around it. The Warsaw Ghetto was walled in and people still escaped from the ghetto.

Walls do not work and in each case people will eventually cross over or go under them to get to where they want to be. It is better to take the $billions and create a better environment on the other side of the wall or fence.

Texas: The time of parole cannot exceed the length of sentence ordered by the judge, Free Advice Staff

For example, if you were sentenced to ten years in prison, and released after three years, the length of your parole would be the balance of your sentence or seven years. If you were paroled after receiving a life sentence, then you would be on parole for the rest of your life.

If that is not cruel and unusual punishment, then what is?

White People Are Broken Medium, Katherine Fugate

Racism is not just an attitude or a feeling toward people who are different than you; racism is also a structural, institutional system which has benefited white people from the day Europeans landed on this soil.

White America owns the majority or wealth in this county. White people own the majority of real estate, run the vast majority of corporations, determine the cost of the products, and the pay of the employees. We control the political system, the judicial system, the educational system, the health system, and the legal system.

But none of these systems are broken. They were built this way. White people are broken. We built these systems this way.

That we live in a country where anyone would have to assert they matter at all, should tell you something is very wrong.

White people are broken, but we don’t have to be. Broken is not evil. Broken means something needs to be fixed. Healed. Changed.

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With Crumbling Bridges and Roads, the Nation is Excited to Build a Giant Wall

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report) August 31, 2015: As America’s bridges, roads, and other infrastructure dangerously deteriorate from decades of neglect, there is a mounting sense of urgency that it is time to build a giant wall.

Across the U.S., whose rail system is a rickety antique plagued by deadly accidents, Americans are increasingly recognizing that building a wall with Mexico, and possibly another one with Canada, should be the country’s top priority.

Harland Dorrinson, the executive director of a Washington-based think tank called the Center for Responsible Immigration, believes that most Americans favor the building of border walls over extravagant pet projects like structurally sound freeway overpasses.

“The estimated cost of a border wall with Mexico is five billion dollars,” he said. “We could easily blow the same amount of money on infrastructure repairs and have nothing to show for it but functioning highways.”

Congress has dragged its feet on infrastructure spending in recent years, but Dorrinson senses growing support in Washington for building a giant border wall. “Even if for some reason we don’t get the Mexicans to pay for it, five billion is a steal,” he said.

While some think that America’s declining infrastructure is a national-security threat, Dorrinson strongly disagrees. “If immigrants somehow get over the wall, the condition of our bridges and roads will keep them from getting very far,” he said.

With Crumbling Bridges and Roads, the Nation is Excited to Build Giant Wall

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Newsy Stuff

2018 – The Year of the Complicated Suburb, Amanda Kolson Hurley, CityLab

In the past several years, a much more complex picture has emerged—one of Asian and Latino “ethnoburbs,” rising suburban poverty, and Baby Boomers stuck in their split-levels. 2018 really drove home the lesson of when Americans say they live in the suburbs (as most do), the suburbia they describe are vastly different kinds of places where people of every stripe live, work, pray, vote, and vie to control their communities’ future.

A century and a half after Frederick Law Olmsted laid out one of the first planned American suburbs in Riverside, Illinois, and seven decades after the builders Levitt & Sons broke ground on the ur-tract ’burb of Levittown, New York, we haven’t fully mapped the contours of modern suburbia—not just who lives there and why, but the role that suburbs play in politics and society.

“A continuum of densities” correlates closely to suburban politics. Rural-suburban areas are strongly Republican; urban-suburban places are overwhelmingly Democratic. But sparse and dense suburbs are more divided—and these were the battleground of the 2018 election. On November 6, Democrats picked up at least 22 seats in sparse- and dense-suburban districts. A suburbanite is now twice as likely to be represented in Congress by a Democrat as by a Republican.

Deciding who we throw away, Cassady Fendlay, Medium

“When millions of us showed up to march, there was a prevailing feeling among women of color, especially black women, that the white women who were showing up to march were not really ready to be allies in this fight. They brought signs with fiery quotes from black feminists and reminded us that the suffragettes didn’t want to march with Black women, didn’t care about their right to vote. The image of activist Angela Peeples, looking cynical with a lollipop and a sign about the 53% of white women who voted for Trump, went viral for its perfect encapsulation of this uneasy suspicion of the “well-meaning” white women.

This moment, with Alyssa Milano, is exactly the type of thing black women were expecting. Alyssa is acting in accordance with the tradition of white women who use the labor of women of color when it’s convenient for them, and then use their power to trash those women when it becomes more expedient. Without being invited to speak at all, Alyssa brought up a 7-month-old controversy in an attempt to force women of color to do exactly what she wants them to do. Yet these things weren’t a problem for her last month, when she was posting pictures of herself in D.C. protesting Kavanaugh at demonstrations organized in large part by Women’s March.”

The Year of the YIMBY, Kriston Capps, CityLab

A few weeks ago, Minneapolis made zoning history when its city council endorsed a comprehensive plan that would enable denser housing development across the city. Elements of the Minneapolis 2040 plan still need to be passed into law, so it falls short of an outright ban on single-family housing, as both supporters and critics have described it. But it’s still the most progressive legislative push by any city yet to face up to the affordable housing crisis, and it’s turning heads in Philadelphia, Dallas, Seattle, and other cities.

“Such an ambitious, large-scale overhaul of zoning rules is practically unheard of in U.S. cities, where single-family neighborhoods with their rows of houses set behind landscaped front yards have typically been off the table during discussions of citywide ‘Smart Growth’ and affordable housing,” reads the Los Angeles Times editorial board’s green-with-envy endorsement.

Differences Bernie Sanders versus Elizabeth Warren, David Dayen

I happen to like Elizabeth Warren more so than I do Bernie Sanders. So, if this comes off in a manner favoring Warren, I apologize. As Dayen notes, “Warren and Sanders are hardly identical progressives. They have different approaches to empowering the working class. In the simple terms, Warren wants to organize markets to benefit workers and consumers. Sanders wants to overhaul those markets and take the private sector out of it. This divide, and where Warren or Sanders’s putative rivals position themselves on it, will determine the future of the Democratic Party for the next decade or more.”

The differences I think you can pick up in the New Republic article I linked to so I will not try to detail them here. Again, as Dayen notes the two progressives are on a collision course and could conceivably split the Democratic vote. In Michigan alone during the 2016 election, it accounted for the state voting for a Repub candidate (first time since 1990), low voter turnout, and a historical high vote for Communist and Libertarian candidates. The same occurred in Wisconsin. Pennsylvania is another state which goes Dem in national elections even though pundits cast doubt upon how it will go.

Watch ‘House Hunters’ to Understand Segregation Natalie Y. Moore, CityLab

House Hunters is on in my home as it is a source of entertainment. Other than the Flip or Flop now divorced couple (she remarried [to keep you up to date]), you can expect to see this at night. I kid my wife about both as it is more like watching the soaps and the dialogues sounds too contrived. Who knew, you could redo a complete bathroom for $5,000 and it always takes 7-weeks to remodel the most ancient of homes? Then too the economics of these shows has given rise to a series of other taunting couples searching for homes or flipping houses just as quick as they can. I guess there is money in those shows.

As the author points out in one episode, “a couple, both in their 20s, paid $1 million for a home in a tony (stylish) North Shore suburb with no backyard . . . insane.) Naturally, we viewers are not privy to the Hunters’ bank statements or financial portfolios, although a few Twitter parody accounts take note.”

I guess if you are born halfway up the ladder, you have a much bigger head start in life than many others of which minorities make up a substantial part. The chances of you slipping backwards on the ladder lessen dependent upon where you are on it. The Center for American Progress in “Understanding Mobility in America” discusses the impact of intergenerational mobility and the degree to which the economic success of children is independent of the economic status of their parents. There is a vast racial wealth and income gap which finds that a U.S. family earning the median black household income of $39,466 would be able to afford fewer than half of all homes listed for sale last year in 17 of the country’s 50 largest markets. The show is a reminder of the impact of US policy towards minorities.

SCOTUS Takes up Electoral Map Disputes, Lawrence Hurley, US News

Partisan gerrymandering is becoming more extreme with the use of precision computer modeling to the point that it has begun to warp democracy in certain states by subverting the will of voters.

June 2018 and SCOTUS failed to issue definitive rulings in cases from Wisconsin and Maryland which election reformers hoped would prompt the high court to crack down on partisan gerrymandering.

In the case in North Carolina, Democratic voters accused the state’s Republican-led legislature of drawing U.S. House of Representatives districts in 2016 in a way that disadvantaged Democratic candidates in violation of the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law. A lower court sided with the Democratic voters.

In order to assure reasonable Congressional Districts to eliminate packing and the deliberate construing of boundaries to give one party an advantage over the other, the Congressional Districts will still have to be gerrymandered as they are too large.

Dollar Stores Tanvi Misra, CityLab

“While dollar stores sometimes fill a need in cash-strapped communities, growing evidence suggests these stores are not merely a byproduct of economic distress,” the authors of the brief write. “They’re a cause of it.”

Like Walmart before them, these retailers present themselves as creators of jobs and sources of low-cost goods and food in “left-behind “areas—both urban and rural. The 2008 recession bolstered their numbers, simultaneously restricting the resurgence of traditional grocery stores and swelling the potential customer base. Middle-class shoppers started frequenting these stores. In 2009, the New York Times picked up on the trend: “Those once-dowdy chains that lured shoppers by selling some or all of their merchandise for $1 are suddenly hot.”

Restaurants are Scrambling for Cheap Labor, Leslie Patton, Bloomberg

In 2019, it is expected fewer teens will be in the workforce reducing the number of job seekers for low-wage work. Due to the shortage they are helping raise the pay rates needed to woo those who are. Minimum wage increases for lower-skilled workers at companies such as Amazon.com, Walmart, and Target have made it more difficult for restaurants to compete for talent and forcing them to try everything from social media campaigns to quarterly bonuses to entice applicants. “The last 18 to 24 months, it’s been very competitive, no matter what time of year.”

Bjorn Erland, vice president for people and experience at Yum Brands Inc.’s Taco Bell chain. “I don’t think it’s going to ease up much just because the holidays are over.”

Why Not Hold Regular Union Representation Elections? , Andrew Strom, On Labor

Citing polls (NLRB) showing many non-union workers would like to have a union at their workplace, each year only a tiny fraction of workers get a chance to choose whether or not they want union representation.

When the Obama NLRB modernized the Board’s election rules and eliminated some unnecessary delays, employers characterized the result as “ambush elections.” The companies insisted they would no longer have enough time to wage their anti-union campaigns.

The NLRB found substantial evidence that employers are generally aware of union organizing drives long before an election petition is filed. A solution as Samuel Estreicher and Michael Oswalt have previously suggested and to give even more notice is to hold regularly schedule representation elections the same way we regularly schedule elections for political office. There is no magic number to how often the elections should take place, but every three years might be optimal. The elections would occur both at unionized and non-union facilities.

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Asking the Wrong Questions: Reflections on Amazon, the Post Office, and the Greater Good

The author of this post which was published in April 2018 on Save The Post Office is Mark Jamison, a retired North Carolina Post Master. From time to time, I have featured both Marks and Steve’s post office advocacy on Angry Bear. Steve is a literature professor who teaches “place studies” at the Gallatin School of New York University. One of these days I will visit Mark in the mountains of North Carolina.

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” — Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

I have not written or said much about postal issues for the last couple of years. After seven years of writing articles for Save the Post Office and other websites, as well as contributing numerous comments to the Postal Regulatory Commission, what more was there to say?

I spent thirty years of my working life at the Postal Service. I’ve put in countless hours reading USPS reports, OIG reports, GAO reports, and who knows how many pleadings before the PRC. I have written numerous articles about the general idea of the postal network as an essential public infrastructure, the arcane minutiae of postal costing and the actions of the PRC, and the machinations of a Congress that seemed more inclined to bloviate and posture than attempt to solve a serious problem affecting millions of Americans and thousands of communities, large and small, rural and urban.

I never stopped thinking about these issues, but what more was there to say? And why bother, really, when the politicians and managers that could actually make changes seemed inclined to let inertia and the status quo slowly erode the capabilities of the postal network while degrading hundreds of thousands of good middle-class jobs?

And then President Trump had one of those brain farts he periodically shovels out over Twitter.

Motivated by his dislike for Jeff Bezos — who has far more money than Mr. Trump will ever have or imagine having and who also owns the Washington Post, which tends to say things that are not particularly complimentary of Mr. Trump and his Alphonse-and-Gaston act as president — the president let forth a blast about how Amazon was ripping off the Postal Service.

It was obvious from his Tweets and subsequent comments Mr. Trump did not have a clue about postal policy, let alone any sort of command of the details. Then again, when the president speaks, people tend to listen. And, as the English poet William Cowper once observed, “A fool must now and then be right, by chance.” (Here in the mountains of North Carolina we might say that even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while).

But was Mr. Trump right about Amazon? A good many folks in the media wanted to know, since if the president says it, it may not be true but it is certainly news.

As it happens, I had written a number of pieces here on STPO specifically about Amazon’s Negotiated Service Agreement with the Postal Service and about package costing and pricing methods in general. In 2013, I also filed a motion with the Postal Regulatory Commission seeking access to the non-public materials in the PRC docket approving Amazon’s NSA. Both the Postal Service and Amazon immediately filed comments opposing my request.

Not content with making an argument for why the NSA should remain secret, Amazon went on to disparage me personally by quoting my articles on Save the Post Office. Amazon observed that I had written that the “postal rate system has become a morass of embedded privilege,” business mailers “are doing fine,” and the Postal Service is a “wholly owned subsidiary of Mailers Inc.” I had also opined, noted Amazon, that PMG Donahoe lied in recent testimony to the Senate, and “Donahoe and the [Board of Governors] have demonstrated an unrestrained contempt for Congress, the rule of law, and most importantly, the American people.”

For what it’s worth, the PMG did give “misleading testimony, and later said he “misspoke.” Everything else I wrote about the rate system, the mailers, and the BOG was true, too. Not that this should have had anything to do with the PRC’s decision not to allow me to see the Amazon NSA it had approved

Anyway, Google being what it is, my pieces about Amazon and the post office showed up in searches, and a few intrepid or at least curious reporters contacted me with questions.

I should give those reporters credit for caring enough about their work to attempt a thorough job. While some of them just wanted a simple answer to, “Is Trump right or wrong?” a couple of these reporters really did want to understand the issues that were involved. Rather than go with a Citibank report that was seriously flawed both methodologically and factually (which just goes to show that highly paid financial analysts writing for elite firms are just as prone to self-delusion and tipping the scales towards their preferred narrative as the rest of us), there were at least a couple of outlets that made the effort to dig beyond the headlines.

The problem is that even the more thorough journalists were asking the wrong questions. Their questions were based on an ingrained narrative about the post office. And, as has become the case in much of our political dialogue, the narratives that prevail and the agendas that drive them originate not from a broad civic space balancing the interests of the American people but from relatively narrow interests. As discussed in a recent post here on STPO about postal retirement and benefit liabilities, it is these agendas that tend to drive the policy prescriptions.

In 2015 I wrote a piece titled “When Titans Collide: UPS petitions the PRC to change USPS costing methodologies.” The piece examined a year long attempt to gerrymander postal costing and pricing systems in ways that best served those in the mailing and package delivery industries. Some of the players have changed over the years as the mail mix has changed, but the goal remains the same – find a way to defenestrate the Postal Service.

The piece looked at the issues that were at the crux of Mr. Trump’s complaint – the Postal Service wasn’t charging enough and it was making “bad deals.” I looked in detail at some of the costing and pricing methods and tried to engage those specific arguments. But the heart of the matter was that the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, the 2006 law that in many ways governs the operation of the Postal Service, had set up an impossible and counterproductive environment that failed to recognize the value of the postal network as an essential national infrastructure.

PAEA had many aims but good policy wasn’t really the focus. After decades of trying to fit the Postal Service into a box it was ill-suited to occupy — that of simply another mailing business rather than an infrastructure — PAEA took a big step in the direction of privatization. By separating postal products into market-dominant and competitive categories and by creating a rate mechanism designed more to satisfy mailing interests than create and sustain a reliable and ongoing postal network, PAEA set up a system that would engage a lobbyist’s feeding frenzy. Other provisions of PAEA were designed to lead to the elimination of postal jobs by saddling the Postal Service with unwarranted and punitive liabilities for its retirees. Though the legislation was filled with all manner of technical provisions, it was largely ideological.

After examining all the arguments in the PRC docket on costs and prices, all the briefs and studies presented by the Postal Service, UPS, the PRC’s Public Representative, and various stakeholders, I came to the conclusion that we had lost the forest for the trees. We had lost sight of the big picture in the sense that the ideas of universal service and access became wholly secondary considerations. We were no longer discussing the broadly-based concerns of national infrastructure. Instead, we had waded into a swamp of special interests where every group of mailers sought the best and highest advantage.

I sent a link of the Titans piece to the journalists who called wanting to understand the current kerfuffle created by Mr. Trump’s comments. I suppose it’s immodest of me to include the response I got from one of the journalists, but I will because it makes a greater point. After reading the piece he e-mailed: “I think this is probably the most insightful and brilliant blog post that synthesizes a generation of (misguided) political thinking and explains how that altered the trajectory of the USPS.”

He said some other nice things, went on to thank me for spending an hour and a half on the phone with him, and then continued to call and email with more questions. But despite my efforts to get him to look at the big picture, he kept coming back to the issue of whether or not the Postal Service could and should be charging more for Amazon packages and if other mailers were also getting sweetheart deals.

So there we were, back to talking about the wrong questions.

What we should have been talking about is how to preserve an essential national infrastructure that connects every American while providing good solid middle-class jobs with salaries and benefits that sustain families and get spent in local communities, an infrastructure that provides affordable rates that benefit American consumers and businesses.

Instead we were arguing about whether charging more for packages would make the Postal Service more profitable and whether big companies like Amazon ought to be paying more, while neglecting to factor in that most increases in package prices would simply be passed on to consumers while allowing UPS and FedEx more freedom to raise prices.

At this point I thought that maybe I was missing something, so I went back and looked at a couple of PRC dockets and recent Annual Compliance Determinations, which review how well the Postal Service is fulfilling its general legal obligations. I also looked at a recent docket on costing methodologies, a subject UPS has repeatedly sought to litigate even though they have never made a credible case the methodologies currently in use aren’t reasonable. Most particularly I looked at RM2017-1, the PRC docket that reviewed the level of institutional contribution that competitive products had to make. This was the one area where I thought UPS had at least a reasonable point in its 2015 filings.

After reading a few hundred pages of legalese and lobbyist pleadings and maneuverings, I came to the conclusion maybe Macbeth had a point, this was all sound and fury signifying nothing. (Macbeth’s greater point is that it still ends in death.)

But Mr. Trump Tweeted.

Recalling Mr. Cowper’s admonishment that a fool could be right and still be a fool, I thought maybe we should look for some validity in his Tweet. Mr. Trump seemed to be making two points. First, the Postal Service was making bad deals, and second that Amazon was destroying retail across America. Let’s take the second one first: Is Amazon destroying local retail?

Maybe, perhaps probably, but that’s not a new phenomenon. Before there was Amazon there was Wal-Mart. In 2006 Tom Slee wrote a wonderful little book titled “No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deception of Individual Choice.” Slee uses game theory to demonstrate that the cumulative total of what appears to be a series of rational choices by individuals turns out to have a vastly negative aspect for local communities.

Actually, it’s not a new idea. Back in the 1930’s, Keynes made the same observation in describing what he called “The Paradox of Thrift.” Keynes noticed that in an economic downturn, individuals make the rational choice of spending less and saving more. If the economy is sour, it’s better to be conservative than a spendthrift. That makes a lot of sense for the individual, but when lots of individuals make that same perfectly rational decision, the end result is that consumer spending dries up, which makes the downturn even worse.

Slee’s updated version of Keynes’s insight is that people rationally value low prices. They also have preferences for nice communities, for vibrant downtowns, and a healthy local business sector. But in most cases those other preferences are somewhat indistinct or at least not entirely obvious.

What is obvious is that saving a few cents on a loaf of bread is a good thing. And while many of us valued wandering around the local grocery market and hardware store, talking to the local owner who probably knew a little bit about a lot of things, we also value the convenience of one-stop shopping. It’s just convenient to be able to look at that new drill in the same store where I’m doing my grocery shopping, and the fact the new drill costs a few dollars less doesn’t hurt.

So lots of folks make the perfectly rational decision to shop at the big box everything store because it’s convenient and cheaper. Oh maybe a few diehards make a conscious effort to give at least some business to local retailers, but margins are slim for local businesses, so the loss of a few customers makes a big difference. So one day we wake up and that vibrant local downtown suddenly has several vacant stores. And because Wal-Mart is big, it can exercise economies of scale like squeezing suppliers for lower prices. And as local retail businesses die so do jobs, which gives Wal-Mart more power in dictating wages.

One day we wake up and those cheap prices we rationally valued have cost us a lot of elements that we valued in our community. Things seem to tilt towards the lowest common denominator. The end result filters through all parts of the community. There’s been no end of reporting on how Wal-Mart instructed employees how to apply for food stamps or Medicaid or other benefits since they didn’t make enough to afford the basics. On balance local tax revenues may suffer. Perhaps the hardest things to measure are the damages to the quality of life and community cohesion.

Amazon is Wal-Mart writ large for the internet age. Amazon started out selling books, but now it calls itself “The Everything Store.” More importantly Amazon is much more than a retailer. It’s a logistics company. Jeff Bezos has simply used retail to generate the revenues to build a vast network of warehouses and backroom data support services. Amazon has a presence in nearly every sector of the economy.

It appears that we love it too, or at least the stock market which, unfortunately, seems to be the gauge by which we measure the success not only of the economy but of our communities and lives. The last I looked Amazon’s P/E ratio was nearly ten times higher than that of the average of the market generally. That means that investors value the company so much that the price of its stock is at historically high multiples of earnings.

Is Amazon killing American retail? Probably, but as Tom Slee might point out, no one makes you shop there.

That brings us to Mr. Trump’s other complaint, that the Postal Service is making terrible deals. Maybe but maybe not. If he’s basing that argument on the fact that the Postal Service is losing money, it’s important to remember that the Postal Service was designed to lose money. It is intentionally built to shovel funds back into the Federal budget, not through profits but from accounting trickery that saddles it with excess liabilities.

By all measures the package business that Mr. Trump focused on is adding to the bottom line with regularity. It’s also important to remember that the Postal Service has only about a 16% share of the package delivery market. It really isn’t in a position to dictate prices.

Much of the noise that followed Mr. Trump’s Tweets seemed to ignore the fact that forcing the Postal Service to charge more for packages would give its competitors, UPS and FedEx, an excuse to raise their prices. In the end, consumers would end up paying higher prices. Plus, forcing the Postal Service to charge more for packages would not only violate the basic market principles it has supposedly been designed to serve but also the structure of the free market itself.

We’re asking the wrong questions and it’s not because we’re stupid. We’re asking the wrong questions because those are the questions a large part of corporate America and the financial elites want us to ask. Mr. Trump got elected by sleight of hand – promising this and doing that – and that’s exactly what is happening with respect to the Postal Service.

So what are the right questions?

First of all, if competition is so important, why is 85% of the package delivery market controlled by two companies? Why aren’t the FTC and the Anti-Trust division of the Justice Department paying attention to this?

Do we value good jobs, local communities, and quality of life? Or do we value low prices more than anything else? If Amazon is too big and powerful, if it’s doing the same thing to local retail that Wal-Mart did a generation ago, then perhaps we should be asking ourselves what it is we really value.

Are we being given an honest accounting of the consequences of government policies? Why, given that 94% of the American public favored some form of protections for Net neutrality, did the FCC ruled in favor of monopoly providers? After a tax cut that was supposed to encourage more investment in the economy and higher wages for workers, why are we just seeing more stock buybacks? And are we going to have to pay for those tax cuts and avoid crippling deficits by cutting the wages and benefits of workers and further eviscerating the safety net?

Do we value the institutions that leveled the playing field and brought to millions of people the benefits of an economy that worked for the many and not merely the few? Do we value essential infrastructures like the postal network?

And finally, this. Are we content to play the duped mark in an oligarch’s confidence game? Are we going to watch valuable public assets and healthy public spaces and public participation in the economy get shuffled around in a game of three-card monte when the winner can only be the entitled elite?

(Mark Jamison is a retired postmaster. His articles on Save the Post Office can be found here, and the comments he’s filed with the Postal Regulatory Commission are listed here.)

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